The best local answer to the malaise of blockbuster season, BAMcinemaFest offers New Yorkers a chance to survey the glories and limitations of American independent cinema. Each year, the program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (which starts its eighth iteration on Wednesday) plucks promising features and documentaries from Sundance, South by Southwest and elsewhere, and arranges them into a bouquet of puzzles, provocations and delights. The unevenness of the offerings is part of the festival’s appeal, and so is a palpable but hard-to-define consistency of themes, methods and attitudes.
The dominant style might be described as an observant, cautious realism, an interest in small-scale stories shot in expressive, shallow-focus, closeup-heavy digital video and inflected a few degrees toward comedy, drama or even horror. Those generic distinctions are not always terribly important. “Little Sister,” Zach Clark’s sweet-and-sad tale of a young nun and her family, could be classified as a comedy, since it sometimes takes a gently mocking view of its characters and situations. But the opening-night film, “Little Men,” Ira Sachs’s latest investigation of love and real estate in millennial New York, is probably a bit too melancholy to qualify. (Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog,” the festival centerpiece, is a Todd Solondz movie, which is a genre unto itself. It opens commercially next week, so I’ll deal with it then. Werner Herzog’s new documentary, “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World,” is also, as you would expect, beyond category.)
It can only be a coincidence that Mr. Sachs and Mr. Clark emphasize smallness in their titles, but it’s also a statement of aesthetic principle. Both films are partly family portraits that try, without political posturing, to understand how social and political forces affect individuals. “Little Men” is mostly concerned with the friendship between two early-adolescent boys, Tony (Michael Barbieri) and Jake (Theo Taplitz), who meet in a rapidly changing Brooklyn neighborhood. Jake moves from Manhattan with his parents, an actor (Greg Kinnear) and a psychotherapist (Jennifer Ehle). Jake’s father has inherited the building where Tony’s mother (Paulina García) has a dress shop. Though “gentrification” is never uttered, economic imperatives and parental stubbornness threaten the bond between the boys, an affection that carries a delicate, intriguing hint of sexual interest.
“Little Men” was filmed in Brooklyn, on streets that audience members may recognize. Not every movie unfolds quite so close to home, but there is a clear pattern of filmmakers exploring nearby and familiar landscapes and people, often in search of shadows and hidden implications. Sometimes these are horrifyingly topical. Two films — Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night,” an inspired-by-facts fictional feature, and Kim A. Snyder’s “Newtown,” a straightforward documentary — deal with recent mass shootings, and they are sure to be even more painful and grimly relevant after the massacre in Orlando, Fla., last weekend.
“Little Sister” handles volatile material — the effects of war, cultural and military, on young Americans — with a lighter touch. Anchored in Addison Timlin’s low-key, sensitive performance, it takes place in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. Colleen (Ms. Timlin) has moved from Asheville, N.C., to New York, but unlike other young migrants to the city, she has come to join a religious order. She returns home to see her brother, a badly injured veteran of the Iraq war, and finds herself in a muted sitcom universe streaked with pain and unspoken conflict. The movie suggests that some kind of reconciliation might be possible in this deeply divided country, in a way that is funny, disarmingly sincere and forgivably naïve.
The young hero of “Morris From America,” a 13-year-old African-American boy (the amazing Markees Christmas) living with his father (Craig Robinson) in Heidelberg, Germany, struggles with his own naïveté, and also with a form of racism that comes wreathed in smiles and Teutonic condescension. It’s not hard to imagine Morris hanging out with Tony and Jake in “Little Men,” and this movie, directed by Chad Hartigan, is, like Mr. Sachs’s, a coming-of-age-story told from an unusual angle. It’s sweet and sharp and very funny, with a precise sense of the stakes, the risks and the thrills that Morris encounters as he navigates his strange surroundings and the equally disruptive stirrings of his own dreams and desires.
CinemaFest is, like most such events, intended as a showcase for directors. Modern film festivals, for better or worse, are bastions of auteurism. But they are also enlivened — in some cases you might say redeemed — by performers, and this year’s BAM program is, if anything, more revealing about the state of screen acting than about the director’s craft. Most films live comfortably within conventions of structure and visual texture, and directors with the nerve or talent to break out of them are rare in all corners of the movie industry. But actors often nowadays seem to have more freedom to push the boundaries of their art and to explore its radical possibilities.
This is what Maggie Siff does in Elisabeth Subrin’s “A Woman, a Part,” a psychological study of just how contradictory and terrifying it can be to pretend, as a matter of professional duty, to be someone else. The busy story, which winds in and out of the personal lives of its characters, is overshadowed by the haunted and haunting intensity that Ms. Siff and Cara Seymour, playing actresses with very different temperaments and biographies, bring to their roles and the roles within those roles.
“A Woman, a Part” finds an ideal companion piece in Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine,” a documentary that follows the actress Kate Lyn Sheil, a fixture of recent indie film, as she researches the role of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida television host whose on-air suicide in 1974 has become something of a media legend. Like Mr. Greene’s “Actress,” “Kate Plays Christine” is a work of empathetic voyeurism, an at times uneasy collaboration between an unseen filmmaker and an exposed, self-conscious subject. Much of it is matter-of-fact almost to the point of banality — Ms. Sheil studies her character’s life and tries to approximate her looks and personality, as any serious actor would — but there is an almost superstitious undercurrent of menace running through the movie. Taking pictures and making up stories is a dangerous business.